It was one year ago today that the North Shore Connector light rail line began taking passengers under the Allegheny River.
The expensive, controversial subway is well-used one year later, but it’s unlikely that the rail line will be extended any time soon.
Retiree Johnny Kurtz said the Port Authority of Allegheny County’s newest rail extension is helpful to get from his house on the T-Line in Carrick to Mercy Behavioral Health on the North Shore.
“It’s pretty popular," said Kurtz. "I see a lot of people getting aboard and getting off, you know, and they do a good job. Good drivers. It’s safe, it’s quick, and hey – I like it.”
Part of the reason it may be so popular is that it’s a free ride until 2015, thanks to a sponsorship from the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Rivers Casino, and Alco Parking. Those are three of the North Shore companies that may have benefited the most from the 1.2 mile, $523 million light rail tunnel.
That staggering construction cost is what created most of the heavy criticism of the North Shore Connector. Jake Haulk, president of the conservative Allegheny Institute, said he still thinks it wasn’t smart to spend all that money, even if 80 percent of the funding came from the federal government.
“We worked it out; it was going to cost about $40 in public subsidy for every rider for the first twenty years on that system, which is just an outrageous amount of money," said Haulk. "This is the most expensive mile of mass transit ever built.”
But now that the tunnel has been built, where does the county’s light rail system go from here?
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said the connector has opened up new possibilities.
“Now, the question becomes ‘Where do we go from here? How do we extend it?’" said Fitzgerald. "Probably up into the North Hills, maybe all the way up into Cranberry to connect the region all the way up into some of the growing sections up there. Also, [the county will] take a look at running it out towards the airport, running it out along Ohio River Boulevard and those areas out there.”
However, Fitzgerald said any such extension would take money, effort, and above all, time. He said it would be at least five to ten years before the county finishes a new leg of the rail system.
“When the subway extension was planned, it was really fifteen years in the making," said Fitzgerald. "It was really from the mid- to late 90s, before a lot of us were ever in office, to the time we cut that ribbon in March of 12. Those kind of projects tend to take a lot of planning, a lot of political work, and a lot of time to get done.”
Although some have floated the idea of a light rail line from Downtown to Oakland, Fitzgerald said that’s unlikely because of right-of-way issues. The county executive said a bus rapid transit system would be a better solution.
Haulk of the Allegheny Institute said he thinks any expansion of light rail must be less expensive than the North Shore Connector.
“You need to use rail right-of-way that’s no longer used. That makes some sense," said Haulk. "When you have to buy up huge amounts of property, cut across enormous numbers of roads, the only way to justify that is to have huge ridership numbers.”
While the North Shore Connector may be getting good reviews from riders one year after it opened, it’s unlikely the Port Authority will build on that success any time soon. The Authority would not comment on usage and the future of the line for this story.